Midway has always been well known for its contributions to the world of arcade sports. As the original masterminds behind the NBA Jam, NBA Showtime, NHL Hitz, and NFL Blitz franchises, over the years the company has amassed a reputation as the best arcade sports developer around. Last year, however, Midway made the somewhat surprising announcement that it would be taking the Hitz and Blitz franchises in a decidedly different direction, opting to shy away from many of the fast and furious gameplay mechanics the titles were known for, in favor of a more simulation-based direction. The first title to debut this newfound gameplay style was NHL Hitz Pro. Ultimately, that game excelled as a mesh between arcade and simulation hockey by maintaining a brisk pace but also allowing you to decide exactly how simulation- or arcade-styled you wanted to go. Thankfully, it proved to be a lot of fun, whichever way you went. With little more than a month left in the 2003-2004 NFL season, Midway released NFL Blitz Pro for the GameCube in early December. Similar to Hitz Pro, Blitz Pro is a combination of arcade and simulation styles. Unfortunately, this combination doesn't work nearly as well as its NHL predecessor, and, while the end result can be fun, overall it's a pretty big leap backward for the Blitz series.
Previous fans of the Blitz series are likely going to require some adjustment time when picking up Blitz Pro. The game is the first Blitz title to feature a full 11-on-11 style of football, and it's also the first to give you real-life 10-yard sets of downs, instead of the usual 30-yard sets. Aside from these basic changes, though, Blitz Pro does stay somewhat true to its forefathers by shirking practically all rules and completely abolishing penalties of any kind, which is a bit bizarre considering Hitz Pro let you turn penalties and rules on and off, depending on your preference.
The biggest overhaul in Blitz Pro involves the game's AI. As classic Blitz fans will tell you, Blitz AI has always been about massive numbers of interceptions and cheap tactics that will allow your opponent to seemingly catch up to you from out of nowhere, no matter how big of a lead you've amassed. Blitz Pro is far more like a sim-based NFL game. Defensive backs will bat away far more passes than they'll intercept. Wide receivers will drop passes that aren't as well-thrown as they could be. And the running game... Well, it's more like a real running game. Despite these changes, however, coaching decisions from CPU teams are still questionable, at best. Teams will frequently go for it on fourth down when there's absolutely no need to. They'll fake punt or try for a fake field goal in bizarre situations. They'll call oddly timed running plays on third and long situations, and CPU-called defensive schemes can be extremely redundant and predictable. The CPU defense is so predictable that you can make a quick read, call an audible, and earn yourself a touchdown--or at least a lengthy gain on practically every drive. While a certain air of unpredictability can be appreciated from some of the AI tweaks in Blitz Pro, all told, there are still a lot of problems to be found.
Not everything in Blitz Pro is totally different this year, as a few conventions from previous titles have made their returns. One welcome mainstay is the impact player system, which lets you control a single player on either the offensive or defensive side of the ball. You get to dictate exactly what his action will be. For instance, on a running play, you can set your tight end to block in a specific direction. Or, if you're going to execute a pass play and you read a blitz, you can tell the tight end to pass protect or go deep (if you're feeling lucky). Defensive players can be told to hold zone coverage, man cover, delay blitz, or go right for the jugular and try to sack the QB from the get-go. Players will still catch fire as well, depending on their performances. The fire aspect of the game is far more understated this time around though, and, really, it's not quite as meaningful as it has been in the past.
In terms of feature improvements, there are some pretty major additions to NFL Blitz Pro. This year's game is the first to feature a franchise mode of any kind. In the franchise mode, you can take any of the available NFL teams and manage them through depth charts, signing free agents, trading players, and drafting rookies during each off-season. The franchise mode also features a player upgrade section where you can use cash earned from wins during the season to "up" specific stat columns for chosen players. So, for example, if you've got a slightly underwhelming starting safety, you can up his various stats--like awareness, speed, and tackling--until he's at a more satisfactory level. The problem with this is that unless you've got a seriously dominating team, you're not going to get to upgrade many of your players each year, and, considering how players have an amazing tendency to up and retire, it's hard to really want to focus on any one player, lest he abandon you at an inopportune time. Free agent signings are also pretty useless, as the cash required to sign any decent player is rather exorbitant, and rarely do they ever stick around more than a season or two before retiring. As it stands, Blitz Pro's franchise mode is lacking, when compared to the competition, but it's also not a bad first try either.
Blitz Pro also features a rather robust unlockables mode called the Blitz shop. Here, you can use credits earned by playing nonfranchise games to buy things like fantasy teams, stadiums, and game modes. Extra modes include: all-or-nothing mode, where you have to score in four downs or it's a turnover on downs; butterfingaz mode, where every hit leads to a fumble; invisible man, where all your opponents are invisible; the always-popular big head mode; and, of course, classic Blitz mode (which, sadly, doesn't really play as much like classic Blitz as you might hope and only serves to further remind you about Blitz Pro's problems).
NFL Blitz Pro doesn't look much differently than the last couple of Blitz titles, and, unfortunately, the game is starting to show its age a bit. The player models animate well, and the various hits, tackles and other moves all look appropriately exaggerated. The actual models themselves just don't hold up as well as they used to. Periodic cutscenes present themselves in between plays, highlighting coach and player reactions. While a few of these are amusing to watch, more often than not they only serve to highlight just how bad some of the models look. Frequently, these scenes are contextually incorrect for the current situation. You might see a coach celebrating after his team has just fallen short of a fourth down conversion, and quarterbacks sometimes show signs of visible frustration after just completing big time passes. The game's presentational aspects, like menus, playbooks, and the like, are all pretty slick and do make up for a few of the game's graphical shortcomings. On the GameCube, Blitz Pro is more comparable to the PS2 iteration of the game, but it doesn't look quite as sharp as the Xbox version.
Blitz Pro features the same style of tongue-in-cheek commentary as previous Blitz titles, with your typical straight-man, wacky guy team. This year's wacky guy, "Gator" Jones, is pretty amusing, and some of the banter will actually elicit a hearty laugh here and there. Unfortunately, there's not quite as much of the commentary as you might like, and lines will repeat fairly frequently. The rest of the game's audio consists largely of recycled sound effects from earlier Blitz titles, with a lot of the same hits, slams, grunts, groans, etc. It's all still great stuff though, and the addition of some decent licensed music here and there definitely adds to the overall audio package.
NFL Blitz Pro has good qualities, but ultimately, it tries much too hard to be something it isn't. The game's simulation football aspects just aren't very well done, and the total inability to customize the game's rules, speed, or the like in any way is kind of ridiculous, especially considering how important that aspect was to NHL Hitz Pro's success. The GameCube version's lack of online support also robs the game of one of the best aspects of the PlayStation 2 game, thus making it a far less palatable choice when deciding between versions. Above all else, Blitz Pro is going to alienate a lot of the Blitz franchise's core audience, as no matter how you look at it, it's just not the same game it used to be. Hardcore simulation football fans will also likely not take terribly well to Blitz Pro in any long-term fashion, as the lack of any true depth in the franchise mode and the total inability to play with rules or penalties of any kind prevent it from being any more than a novelty game in that respect. That being said, NFL Blitz Pro is not a total washout, by any means, but it is indeed a disappointment.